AFTER A DECADE-PLUS HIATUS following his acclaimed The Last Days of Disco, director Whit Stillman is back with a bizarre quirkfest about a group of girls trying to civilize a recently-integrated boys college—the perfect inverse of PCU. If that film was about a group of party boys teaching a school to grow some balls, Damsels in Distress is about a group of prudish princesses teaching it to grow a vagina.
Stillman doesn't have a vagina, and Damsels feels largely like it was written by a closeted-gay intellectual from the 1800s. Greta Gerwig plays Violet, ringleader of a group of girls who run the campus suicide prevention center. She uses words like "mustn't," hopes to rehabilitate the depressed through tap dance, and dreams of starting an international dance craze. Another character passes out whenever a sweaty guy passes, and dates a fratboy who never learned his colors. Sound hilarious so far? It seems like it might be satire, but I don't know what of, or what planet these characters are supposed to be from.
Some people find comedy that's too "big" to be embarrassingly bawdy, and Damsels in Distress is the perfect film for them—it's a comedy so mannered it barely makes jokes, a bloodless collection of quirks for repressed intellectuals who think farts are something you read about in The New Yorker. The most interesting bit is a scene in a class called "Flit Lit," the study of closeted homosexual writers (one of the few genuinely funny parts of the film, not to mention a class I'd totally take). I assumed it was a meta reference to the Proustian style of Damsels itself, and between that and the character whose boyfriend only wants to have anal sex with her, I thought Stillman might be trying to say something about the nature of closeted repression. Only the subject is quickly dropped, drowned in a sea of digressionary whimsy about soap. To be fair, Damsels in Distress is a singular experience—I'm just not sure what it was actually about. It's like Wes Anderson with autism.